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It's the Minimum Lawmakers Can Do for the Working Poor

August 11, 2003|Douglas MacKinnon

In politics, those in power rarely witness the consequences of their actions or look into the eyes of the people devastated by the cold stroke of a pen or an impersonal yea or nay vote. Such is the case with the much-needed minimum-wage hike now stalled in the Senate Labor Committee.

What price are we, as Americans, willing to put on human worth, on safety, decent medical care and hope? If a minimum-wage increase isn't passed, Congress will have decided that $5.15 an hour is that price -- a number that should bring shame to anyone who truly cares about those barely existing below the poverty line.

I'm a Republican with a somewhat unusual perspective on this issue: I grew up in abject poverty and was homeless a number of times as a child. Poverty has never been an academic or partisan issue for me. It destroys the human spirit, creates crime, divides classes, fosters misunderstandings and, worst of all, crushes innocent children.

There are well-meaning Republicans in the Senate blocking the minimum-wage hike. Some do it because Democrats in the Senate wrongfully insist on attaching the hike to another costly bill. Others because they fear employers will eliminate jobs should the wage hike go forward.

On the first count, the Democrats are wrong for attaching the minimum-wage hike to the foreign operations bill. They know this expensive and controversial bill won't pass and, by hitching minimum wage to it, they will create an "issue" for the Democratic presidential nominees to use to attack President Bush.

As for the Republicans who fear employers would eliminate jobs, they are flat-out wrong; most are already paying above what the increase would be. The compassionate conservatism that the president speaks of must start with Americans most in need.

On both sides of the aisle, senators and representatives are insulated from the consequences of such stratagems and positions. Few have ever experienced real poverty. They live in a cocoon of security and ignorance, and they earn pay that lumps them with the highest-earning 1% of all Americans. Not a lifestyle conducive to understanding what it's like to try to live on $5.15 per hour. The last time the minimum wage was increased was 1997. Since that time, members of Congress have voted themselves $21,000 in pay raises.

The accepted "poverty line" for a family of three in the United States is about $14,800 per year, another national disgrace. Pick up a newspaper in any large city in our country and try to find a decent apartment for less than $1,000 per month. Figure in money for food, clothes, medical bills, transportation to and from the $14,800-a-year job, utilities, entertainment and unexpected expenses. It doesn't add up.

Now imagine trying and failing to live on today's minimum wage: $5.15 per hour works out to $206 a week, or $10,712 per year. That's $4,000 less than what most would agree no American family can survive on.

And the really bad news about the proposed minimum-wage hike is that even if it goes through, the minimum wage will be only $6.65 per hour. That's $266 a week, or $13,832 a year.

Americans who exist below the poverty line do so mostly because of accidents of birth or circumstances beyond their control. Instead of the Hamptons, they were born in Harlem. Instead of order, they are surrounded by dysfunction. Until you've been there, you have no idea of the pain, humiliation and hopelessness. The poor in the United States are not "non-persons." They have the same hopes, dreams, fears and integrity that the well-to-do have. All they lack is enough money to care for their children and themselves.

The minimum-wage hike is not much but, below the poverty line, every penny counts. The Senate should strip it out of the foreign aid authorization bill and approve it immediately. Morally, it is the right thing to do. As a Republican, I would say that to represent the majority, we must serve the majority. We must be there for those in need.

We, as a people, are better than this.

Douglas MacKinnon was press secretary to former Sen. Bob Dole.

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